Chaos Theory: A Novel
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Chaos Theory: A Novel [Hardcover]

Gary Krist
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews Review

We all had those terrible nights in high school. We borrowed dad's car, and instead of rushing home to meet curfew, decided to indulge in a little mischief: party-hopping, drag-racing on a deserted road, or drinking beer during an impromptu "sleepover." But what if the little violation of parental trust turned into something much worse? What if somebody died during that joy ride? What if the events of that one night changed your life forever?

In Gary Krist's Chaos Theory, two college-bound high school students watch an evening on the town turn into the nightmare of a lifetime. Jason Rourke and Dennis Monroe are smart and respectable boys from a suburban Washington D.C. neighborhood. Jason is white and Dennis is black, and their occasional discomfort over racial identity sometimes leads them to a bit of posing. One Sunday night, Dennis, pretending an urban sophistication, convinces Jason that they should head to the seedy side of D.C. to score some marijuana. Their black Audi is an easy target for the dealer, who attempts to reach into the car and grab the boys. They flee the scene, dragging the man behind the car for a moment before his arm snaps, shots are fired, and he falls into the road. The boys return home, their hearts pounding, feeling fortunate to have escaped injury. But the next morning's paper reports that the man they escaped is now dead. And their failed petty crime inadvertently involves them in a mess of city politics when the dealer turns out to be a police officer in disguise.

Krist carefully unfolds the subsequent investigation as the two boys realize that they can't escape punishment. Gradually, the novel evolves into a briskly paced thriller as the deeper implications of the officer's death--and his connections to an insidious political conspiracy--put Jason and Dennis in fatal jeopardy. Throughout, Krist never abandons the careful control of his prose and his characters; one can't help but see oneself in Jason and Dennis's plight. And Krist's observations about D.C.--its corrupt politics, its tragic separation between haves and have-nots, and its pervasive racial tensions--simmer behind every page. --Patrick O'Kelley

From Publishers Weekly

Spinning a plausible situation into an extraordinary story while training a marksman's eye on character, Krist has conceived a sleek and thoughtful thriller set on the streets of Washington, D.C. Two affluent high school classmates, Jason Rourke and Dennis Monroe, leave a boring party and drive to the rough end of town to buy a couple of joints. They find a street-corner dealer, but he mistakes them for other dealers and pulls a gun. The boys manage to speed off in their car, but in the process, they accidentally drag the dealer along, eventually leaving his mangled body in the street. The next morning, Rourke and Monroe learn that the dealer is dead, with two bullet wounds in his body; worse still, the papers say he was an undercover cop. Or was he? The teens are horrified to discover that this event has put them smack in the center of a sinister conspiracy, in which a criminal ring helps important people who want to escape their troubles to disappear. For a hefty fee, the crooks will stage the death, substituting the body of a physically similar homeless person for the person who wants to be declared dead. Krist swiftly twists his white-knuckle story into a frenzied manhunt as Rourke and Monroe flee the conspirators, who will kill the boys for what they know. The boys' parents, the FBI and one of their teachers, meanwhile, are desperately trying to track them down before the bad guys do. Along the way, Krist (Bad Chemistry; Bone by Bone) shows his flair for portraying characters under extreme emotional pressure. Among his best here is Rourke's father, Graham, a man wracked by guilt about his wife's suicide and about his crumbling relationship with his son. Rourke and Monroe are sharply drawn na?fs, who act tough but are really smart, resourceful middle-class kids who care about their friendship and their college futures. Their adolescent na?vet? provides a clean contrast with the complicated outlook of adults in the story, ultimately commenting on the resiliency of youth. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

When two middle-class teenagers, one black and one white, venture into a seedy part of Washington, DC, in search of drugs, they find something very different. Jason Rourke and Dennis Monroe encounter a drug dealer with something strange about him. After he pulls out a pistol, they speed off, leaving him injured in the street. The next morning, they learn that an undercover police officer has been killed and that they are suspects. At the same time, they find themselves pursued by mysterious individuals who want them dead. With the aid of their journalism teacher and her FBI agent friend, the boys soon realize that they have stumbled upon a deadly, far-ranging conspiracy. Racial issues form the backdrop of this deftly written thriller. For public libraries.
-ALawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

Doubling the stakes of John Grishams The Client, Krist plunges a pair of young heroes into peril that starts with a bang and ends with a bang-bang-bang. Two bright, college-bound Washington, D.C., teenage friends, Jason Rourke (white) and Dennis Monroe (black), leave a dull birthday party to score some marijuana. They end up in a grimy Northeast neighborhood alley where their drug deal turns sour and the supposed dealer is injured. The next day they find out hes an undercover cop and hes dead. Before they know it, the boys have become targets of a vast political conspiracy. After theyre set up by a drug find in their high school lockers, each vamooses in a different direction. Krist (Bad Chemistry, 1997, etc.) works the parallel plot lines for nonstop action. Jason is involved in a grisly murder scene in the Rock Creek Park horse stables. Dennis is kidnapped and held handcuffed and hungry in a damp basement. But the boys have enlisted a respected white journalism teacher, Renee Daniels, who in turn seeks help from an ex-lover, black FBI agent Frank Laroux. Renee steals files and uncovers the conspiracy the boys have stumbled on. Soon big men in trouble are disappearing, replaced by the dead bodies of little men on the margins. Krist cuts back and forth between the dramatic, racially inflected perils of the boys and the emotional reactions of their distressed parents. Jason hides out with Renees mother on the Eastern Shore, setting the scene for a heart stopping chase scene in a moonlit swamp. Denniss rescue involves a bumpy dune-buggy race across a beach. And even though his nonstop activity would seem to forbid a break for anything deeper, Krist manages some observations on strained parent/child relationships, difficult friendships, political subterfuge, guilt, loyalty, and sins of the past. Most readers will remember this wild ride, though, as a page-turner with new dangers and set-pieces every two minutes. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.


Advance praise for Chaos Theory:

"Extraordinary. . . . a sleek and thoughtful thriller. . . . A white-knuckle story. . . . Krist shows his flair for portraying characters under extreme emotional pressure."
--Publishers Weekly

"Doubling the stakes of John Grisham's The Client, Krist plunges a pair of young heroes into peril that starts with a bang and ends with a bang-bang-bang. . . . A page-turner with new dangers and set-pieces every two minutes."
--Kirkus Reviews

Praise for Bad Chemistry:

"Bad Chemistry is fresh, fast-moving, compelling. An impressive debut."
--Jonathan Kellerman

"World-class. . . . If you start Bad Chemistry, you're going to finish it. Then you'll hope Krist has another one coming. Bad Chemistry is my nominee for the Best First Mystery of the Year award."
--Tony Hillerman

"What makes Bad Chemistry more than another well-constructed genre novel are those dark shadows beneath the surface. . . . This first novel is as much a meditation on the power of secrets as it is a detective story."
--The New York Times Book Review

From the Inside Flap

"Krist reminds us of how much fun reading can be."
--The New York Times

Chaos Theory is a shrewd, literate, and compulsively readable thriller set against the background of Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s--a city on the brink of economic, social, and moral collapse.

Jason Rourke, who is white, and Dennis Monroe, who is black, are good kids and good friends. One night, on a dare, they drive to a blighted part of Washington to buy a little marijuana. But it isn't their night, and the deal goes terribly wrong. Before it's over, a shot is fired, and the two just barely get away, leaving a small-time drug dealer lying wounded in the street.

Their troubles are only beginning. The next morning, Jason and Dennis learn that the incident with the drug dealer was far worse than it seemed. Finding themselves suspects in a bizarre homicide, the two are forced to flee, leaving their families terrified and confused. And what started out as a relatively innocent moment of adolescent mischief soon turns into a nightmarish, life-threatening ordeal, one that eventually draws these sheltered teenagers into a citywide scheme of murders and cover-ups that may involve some of Washington's most prominent--and most trusted--public officials.

Gary Krist's first thriller, Bad Chemistry, was praised for its sharp intelligence and its deft and deep characterizations. Here he broadens his canvas, creating a drama that explores the thoughts and feelings of two families who suddenly find their lives spiraling out of control. The result is a sophisticated novel of suspense, one that takes us deep into the decay and corruption of a city tottering on the edge of chaos.

From the Back Cover

Advance praise for Chaos Theory:

"Extraordinary. . . . a sleek and thoughtful thriller. . . . A white-knuckle story. . . . Krist shows his flair for portraying characters under extreme emotional pressure."
--Publishers Weekly

"Doubling the stakes of John Grisham's The Client, Krist plunges a pair of young heroes into peril that starts with a bang and ends with a bang-bang-bang. . . . A page-turner with new dangers and set-pieces every two minutes."
--Kirkus Reviews

Praise for Bad Chemistry:

"Bad Chemistry is fresh, fast-moving, compelling. An impressive debut."
--Jonathan Kellerman

"World-class. . . . If you start Bad Chemistry, you're going to finish it. Then you'll hope Krist has another one coming. Bad Chemistry is my nominee for the Best First Mystery of the Year award."
--Tony Hillerman

"What makes Bad Chemistry more than another well-constructed genre novel are those dark shadows beneath the surface. . . . This first novel is as much a meditation on the power of secrets as it is a detective story."
--The New York Times Book Review

About the Author

Gary Krist has written two New York Times Notable Books--a novel, Bad Chemistry, and a story collection, Bone by Bone--and The Garden State, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. A widely published journalist and critic, Krist lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with his wife and daughter (

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Dennis said he knew where to get some cocaine.

"Yeah, right," Jason answered. "I'll bet you do."

"I mean it, Jase. I'm a worldly kinda guy."

The laugh took Jason by surprise. Red wine shot up his nose, the sting drawing tears to his eyes. "God," he said, "don't tell me things like that when I'm mid-gulp." He wiped his eyes on his sleeve and then, settling back against the sticky leather seat of the car, held out the bottle for his friend.

"You don't believe me," Dennis said, waving the bottle away.

"It's not that I don't believe you, man. It's just that I know you."

"You don't know shit." Dennis shot him a mock scowl. "You ignorant. You just a ignorant white boy."

"Oh, right, right. The minute we get downtown, Mr. Harvard-bound starts talking like Snoop Doggy Dogg."

"You better watch yourself," Dennis went on. "I be one badass mandingo, don't you know that?"

"Oh yes, Dennis, I'm aware of that," Jason said. "You so badass you sometimes hand in your homework two days late."

"And you know what that can do to a homeboy's GPA."

"I do," Jason said, pounding the cork back into the bottle with his fist. "Badass mandingo. Please."

It was just after ten o'clock on a chilly Sunday night. Jason Rourke and Dennis Monroe, juniors at Robert F. Kennedy High School in northwest Washington, D.C., were sitting in the Monroes' black Audi, stopped at a red light near Union Station.

The moonlit city stretched out in front of them--like an offering, it seemed to Jason, an opportunity too good to pass up.

An hour earlier, they'd escaped from one of the more excruciating parties in recent memory--the sedate, alcohol-free birthday celebration of their classmate Melinda Parks, a tall, gorgeous, depressingly wholesome girl whose father was minister at a local Baptist church. It was a grisly scene from the very start, with the Reverend himself asking everyone to join hands for an opening prayer of thanksgiving. By the time ten o'clock rolled around and Melinda's mother began shepherding people toward the grand piano to sing "Happy Birthday," the two had reached their limit. "Let's disappear," Jason whispered to his friend, "before they start launching into Rodgers and Hammerstein." Dennis agreed, and the two of them sneaked out without a word to anyone. Jason produced the bottle of red wine, slipped secretly from his father's basement wine rack earlier that night, and opened it with the corkscrew on his Swiss Army knife. Then they got into the car, took a few long, sour chugs of wine, and just started driving, not knowing where they wanted to go but knowing that home was definitely not it.

"Anyway," Jason said now, as they waited for the light to turn green. "You ever really do cocaine? I mean honestly."

"Honestly?" Dennis looked straight at him for a few seconds, clearly considering a lie or a joke. He had dark, deep-set eyes, sharp cheekbones, and a sloping, wide-nostriled nose that gave him a weirdly exotic look--more Egyptian than black. Jason, with his messy wad of wiry brown hair and sallow cheeks, always felt a little too ordinary next to him. "Nope," Dennis said finally, shaking his head. "Never tried it."

"Me neither." Jason looked down at the wine in his hands.

The streetlights outside touched the curves of the bottle with vague Os of light. "I heard that Cory Donahue snorted something before the PSATs. In the boys' room right before the exam started."

Dennis looked interested. "How'd he end up doing?"

"Ninety-fifth percentile, dude. Better than you."

"Shit. Ninety-fifth percentile?"

"Math and Verbal. If he had your skin color, they'd be paying him to go to Harvard."

Dennis raised his eyebrows. "You're a racist, you know that, Jase?"

"Yeah, I know," he said. "And my cousin Julie in Canada tells me I'm an 'unreconstructed sexist.' What else is new?"

They drove past the pale, hulking facades of the House Office Buildings. The sidewalks were empty at this time on a Sunday night in March, but there were still a few lights on in the office buildings--congressmen, Jason figured, pretending to work late. At the next corner, Dennis stopped and turned east, and the streets changed almost immediately. The big government buildings were suddenly gone, giving way to long lines of tidy row houses on dark, narrower, tree-lined streets. After a few blocks, Dennis turned north again, and Jason glimpsed the stark white peak of the Capitol dome moving across an intersection, as vivid and incongruous as a UFO.

"Seriously speaking," Dennis said after a while, "now that we're heading this way, we probably could turn up a few joints. If we wanted."

Jason kept his eyes on the hovering white dome. The statue on top could have been a border guard, watching them from its tower.

"I know a promising street corner," Dennis added.

Jason didn't answer for a few seconds. He glanced over at his friend. Dennis was wearing his "preppy disguise," as he called it--blue button-down shirt, chinos, some bland oatmeal-colored jacket. Next to Jason, in his black leather jacket and ratty sneakers, Dennis didn't look like the one who would hear about the promising street corners. But Jason, for all his teasing, knew better.

Jason ran his fingers over the raised gold seal on the label of the wine bottle. He understood that this wouldn't be the same as buying from the bald Grenadian who hung around the high school grounds on weekends. They were heading into Northeast. "It would be one way of saving this night," he said uncertainly. "And I've got a spare twenty in my wallet."

"A twenty would do it. If we were so inclined."

The two friends locked eyes for a few seconds.

Dennis smiled. "Or would you rather go back to Melinda's party?"

That did it. "Like shit," Jason said finally. "Consider me so inclined."



Dennis took a slow breath. "Excellent," he said. "Then let's incline on over there."

They continued north past Stanton Park. Preparing himself, Jason corked the wine bottle more tightly and shoved it under the seat. He took the wallet out of his back pocket, removed the twenty, and then pocketed the wallet again. The bill was wrinkled, so he tried to press it smooth against his thigh.

"Don't get it all sweaty," Dennis said. "Dealers in these parts hate wet money." It wasn't even a joke, but Jason laughed anyway--a high-pitched, unnatural giggle that embarrassed him. Don't be a dick, he told himself firmly, pressing the bill harder against his thigh.

They continued north for a while longer, the streets turning shabbier and grimmer as they drove. They passed a weed-choked lot, the loading dock of a sheet-metal works, and then an abandoned gas station, the blackened, burned-out shells of its gas pumps lined up like headstones in a cemetery. This is the city you live in, Jason told himself.

Dennis turned the Audi onto a dismal side street lined with peeling row houses. Almost all of the windows and doorways were boarded up with splintered, graffiti-slashed plywood. Three black men sat on a broken stoop, hunched against the unseasonable cold, each one facing in a different direction. Dennis slowed down. "It should be right around here," he said.

They turned another corner. This block was quieter, the buildings lower and windowless, more industrial. Jason felt a sizzle of anxiety in his stomach. He was like an astronaut, he thought suddenly--unmoored and weightless in space. "Shit, Dennis, I don't know about this. Who told you about this place?"

Dennis grinned, looking pleased by Jason's nervousness. "Relax," he said. "This is what it's all about, Jason. Grace under pressure. It'll be good discipline for you, trust me." He steered the Audi around a fallen trash can spilling bottles and grease-stained pizza boxes into the street. A few drops of rain spattered the windshield. They caught the light like tiny beads before Dennis turned on the wipers and smeared them into blurry arcs.

Then, just before they reached the end of the block, near a stop sign with its top half bent back in a perfect right angle, a figure came out of an alleyway and moved straight toward the curb. "Here we go," Dennis said.

It was a short Latino man with a heavy jaw, a thin mustache, and a gold hoop earring in the lobe of his left ear. He stepped toward the car, his hands deep in the pockets of a brown vinyl jacket. Jason closed his eyes for a second, bracing himself. He rolled down the window just as Dennis pulled up at the curb.

"This the deaf guy?" the man asked. He stooped to the open window on Jason's side. "Shit, look what we got here. This him?"

"Hey, man," Dennis said. "What's up?"

The man peered at Dennis, then at Jason, then back again. He seemed nervous and uncertain. "I asked you a question."

"You selling loose joints?" Jason blurted, wanting to get this over with.

There were little dots of sweat cobbling the man's broad face. "He don't talk like he's deaf. You guys fuckin' with me? Where's the deaf guy?"

"Sorry, there's no deaf guy, man." Dennis leaned across the gearshift. "We're just trying to conduct a little business with you."

The dealer slammed both hands against the car door. "I can't believe this shit. You're supposed to bring me the deaf guy. Did Arlene tell you to fuck with me?"

Dennis straighten...
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